An excited buzz rose above the clatter of dishes in the refectory as Columbia Theological Seminary welcomed reunion classes, retired faculty, family and friends of the community for the Alumni/ae Association meeting and dinner April 12.
Susannah Cook, outgoing association president, conducted the evening’s business, including the election of 2010-11 officers, Ann Kelly, president; Anne Apple, vice president; and Hugh Hamilton, secretary. Cook also announced that alumni/ae annual fund participation increased by 5 percent during the 2009-10 fiscal year.
An awards presentation followed the meeting. The Rev. Mark Adams was named the recipient of the Pioneer in Mission award. Adams is the U.S. coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, part of Presbyterian Border Ministry. Adams helps people on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border establish conversations around theology, politics and social issues.
Realizing that employment and just wages are vital, Adams worked to create a sustainable small-scale coffee company called Café Justo.
Speaking around laughter and tears, Adams admitted that former CTS President Doug Oldenburg had once referred to him as a burr under his saddle.
“Essentially,” Adams quipped, “he was calling me a pain in the ass, in the nicest way possible!
“I’m grateful to God for all those who taught me,” Adams said, recalling a class on marriage taught by Charlie Cousar. “What I learned ultimately led me to my wife and partner, Miriam. We share a common mission and discipleship I wouldn’t have had without Cousar’s example.”
Distinguished Service awards were also given to two professors emeriti. The first went to Hubert Taylor, retired teacher of voice and church music. Taylor served on the committee to compile the Presbyterian Hymnbook of 1955, which served as a stimulus for reunion of the northern and southern churches, and continued in the process that eventually led to the Book of Common Worship.
The second Distinguished Service award was presented to James Newsome, by Susannah Cook for George Stroup, Professor of Reformed Theology, who wrote the commendation but was unable to attend. The award falls in the 55th anniversary of Newsome’s ordination by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
“God has given Jim a pastor’s heart and a scholar’s intellect,” read Cook.
Alums nodded, reflecting primarily on Old Testament and Hebrew grammar courses with Newsome. “God is merciful,” he used to assure frantic students. Fortunately, Newsome was merciful as well.
After pausing to recognize CTS graduates who have gone on to the Church Triumphant, President Stephen Hayner brought special greetings on the eve of his inauguration.
“History turns on very small hinges in very small places,” Hayner began, reflecting that God often uses those changes to change lives of individuals.
Inviting the gathered community to look at the “portraits high on the walls of refectory, portraits of faculty emeriti, of men and women who have gone before us, amazing because of the ways their hearts have touched our hearts: their lives, our lives; their souls, our souls,” Hayner spoke as one who has been touched in his own life by these leaders of the church since joining the Columbia faculty in 2003.
“God has used that leadership to change the world forever. Threads go out from this room to places literally around the world. It is a tremendous privilege to stand among them, shoulder to shoulder in the presence of God who weaves all these things in ways we could never ask or imagine.”
Then, with a closing prayer, guests were invited to join in worship at Columbia Presbyterian Church. The CTS community came intentionally to give thanks to God and prepare for the history-making inaugural task of the next day.
Steve Swayne, associate professor of Music at Dartmouth College, offered “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee” as a powerful musical admonition before the prayer of confession.
David Bartlett, professor of New Testament, preached a sermon entitled, “Together in one Voice,” exploring Romans 15:1-6 and noting that the occasion of the inauguration stood at the “intersection of memory and hope. With the author of Romans,” he continued, “we must look to the words of former days for our instruction.”
“That’s the work of the church and this seminary — unashamedly and irrevocably wed to interpretation of scripture.”
“We are called to live in this century under the guidance of scripture, to live in harmony together with one voice to glorify God. And it’s the one voice part that’s tricky!”
“When Paul says ‘together,’” that word is better translated “with one purpose,” said Bartlett. And “harmony does not mean uniformity. We are not all to become monotones for the sake of the Kingdom!”
Bartlett concluded, “We don’t know what will happen to our churches. Some are moving from mainline to old-line to flatline. We do know that God will be God and Christ will be Lord and the church will be the church. We may need to learn to sing new songs in new lands and we’ll definitely have to deal with bigger and more diverse choirs!”
“CTS will never be a monotone. This faculty,” Bartlett quipped, “is solidly Presbyterian, wonderfully decent, and usually in order!”
“We are installing a president who brings gifts of memory and hope — one who will not just sing in the same register as anybody else, who will teach us and learn from us, and join us in raising harmonious — well, usually harmonious — voices to the glory of God.”
Anna Carter Florence, Peter Marshall associate professor of Preaching, invited us to the table with words adapted from the Book of Common Worship, praying: “Bless us your children in this seminary, struggling to be faithful, struggling to speak, that our lives might bring life and grace and justice to those who have no speech.”
Then sing we did, through the ancient ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Pianist Swayne and soloist Kimberly Long, Columbia’s assistant professor of Worship, led a magnificent rendition of Edwin Hawkins’ “This Day” proclaiming: “O God, we need your love! O God we need your peace! O God, we need your joy so we can be free!”
And then, as candles were lit throughout the sanctuary, we sang on, out into the night, full of the sense of being in that place where memory intersects with hope.